German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 5: Theodor Fritsch

In his analysis of Theodor Fritsch’s anti-Semitism, the historian Reginald Phelps makes the claim that the German politician and influential publisher was the most important anti-Semite before Hitler.[1] In this assessment Phelps is in general agreement with the majority of the extant literature, which identifies Fritsch as a key figure within the anti-Semitism of the late 19th century as well as a figurehead for the development of National Socialism.[2] Moshe Zimmermann refers to Fritsch as a “herald” of antisemitism in advance of Hitler, while Gutteridge notes that Fritsch was revered as a “supreme authority” by the Nazis.[3] Fritsch’s contributions to the politics of anti-Semitism are crucial for their practical import. His writings reveal a distinct preoccupation with blending theory with praxis—a point observed in the introduction to a 1934 edition of Fritsch’s Handbook on the Jewish Question.[4]  

Fritsch was born in the small Saxon village of Wiesenena on 28 October 1852. After leaving school, Fritsch completed an apprenticeship in casting and machine building, followed by extensive formal studies in the field of milling technology. Upon graduating Fritsch gained employment in Berlin as a technician and engineer. Displaying an early political drive and entrepreneurial spirit, Fritsch founded the Deutscher Müllerbund (German Miller’s League), which led to the establishment of a publishing house specialising in technical information related to the milling industry. As a member of these industrial associations Fritsch cultivated his own anti-Semitic views, using his influence to promote a discussion forum dealing with questions relating to the Jews. Seeking to extend the forum’s influence, Fritsch invited both de Lagarde and Friedrich Nietzsche to help increase the profile of the so-called Anti-Semitic Correspondence network. De Lagarde, unsurprisingly, expressed sympathy with the aims of the network, but in his approach of Nietzsche Fritsch miscalculated the great philosopher’s ambiguity toward the Jewish question.[5] Nietzsche’s response personally mocked Fritsch, de Lagarde, and their brand of virulent ant-Semitism:

These constant, absurd falsifications and rationalizations of vague concepts “germanic,” “semitic,” “aryan,” “Christian,” “German” — all of that could in the long run cause me to lose my temper and bring me out of the ironic benevolence with which I have hitherto observed the virtuous velleities and pharisaisms of modern Germans.[6]  

Undeterred, Fritsch went on to establish another publishing house—the Hammer-Verlag—whose sole purpose was the dissemination of anti-Semitic literature. Amongst the output of the Hammer-Verlag was a journal titled “The Hammer: Pages for German Common Sense.” The journal offered Fritsch a chance to share his views about the Jews, and although he sought out contributions by other anti-Semites of the day, by the 1920s he was the journal’s primary author.[7] Throughout this time Fritsch maintained frequent personal correspondence with friends and ideological sympathisers. Fritsch’s letters to fellow anti-Semitic publicist Wilhelm Marr sheds important light on his views about Judaism, the future of the anti-Semitic movement, and potential solutions to the Judenfrage. Of his anti-Semitic vision, Fritsch explains that he is “looking tirelessly for a lever with which to overturn the Jewish world.”[8] He continues by suggesting that the ultimate goal was not limited to dealing with the Judenfrage in Germany, but that it should be considered a question of universal importance:

The Jews are nowadays an object of envy for the majority of the people. Only when anti-Semitism achieves a resounding success will the whole world become anti-Semitic too, out of deep persuasion.[9]  

The disunity and mutual distrust amongst the many and varied anti-Semitic groups operating in Germany at the time was considered by Fritsch to be the most significant obstacle needing to be overcome if there was to be an effective solution to the Judenfrage:

Our poor and divided Anti-Semitic Party has lost so much face because of the disunity of its “leaders” who threw mud at each other. That has also caused doubts and mistrust from within, so that a new step along these lines will perhaps finish the party off.[10]

Fritsch’s political vision, therefore, sought to unite the disparate anti-Semitic groups within Germany under a single collective banner. To further this vision, he tried (and failed) to secure a seat in the Reichstag through his membership in the Anti-Semitic People’s Party. Despite these attempts at creating unity, leadership struggles still marred the effectiveness of the party. An ongoing rivalry with Otto Böckel resulted in a complex organisational structure which saw Böckel confined to leadership within his own state of Hesse, while on a national level a newly formed German Anti-Semitic Association (Deutsche Antisemitische Vereinigung) operated in-line with Fritsch’s desire to unite all common political groups operating in Germany at the time.

Fritsch’s activism had significant personal consequences by way of arrests for spreading blasphemy and hate speech. These charges were directly related to Fritsch’s extreme position on the place of the Old Testament within Christian theology, in which he argued that the arrival of Jesus replaced the need for any recourse to the God of the Jews.[11] This argument was an extension of his core belief that Jesus was a Galilean Aryan and could not have represented any fulfillment of Judaism. The charges brought against him were laid by the Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, who maintained that Fritsch’s polemic against the God of the Old Testament was not only a gross insult to the Jewish faith but was incongruent with the God of the New Testament who was one and the same deity.[12] For Fritsch’s part, he dismissed such ideas by insisting that “the unfathomable opposition between Christian and Jewish doctrine … precludes any racial kinship.”[13]   

In 1887 Fritsch produced his most popular and controversial work, the Catechism for Anti-Semites (known from 1907 as the Handbook on the Jewish Question).[14] Fritsch published the initial version under a pseudonym, and his role was chiefly that of an editor as opposed to sole author. In the Handbook, Fritsch compiled a diverse range of anti-Semitic writings into a cohesive whole, with the express purpose of creating “a textbook, a pamphlet and an academic work of reference.”[15] Klautke notes that both the immediate impact and long-term influence of the work was considerable; it remained in print for forty-seven years and about 300,000 copies were circulated.[16] Its significance was reflected in its status as a quasi-Bible for the German anti-Semitic movement, in much the same way that Hitler’s Mein Kampf would become required reading for Nazi Party members. The work is divided into three sections. The first is a form of catechism, which was largely propagandistic in nature. It took the form of a series of questions and answers relating to the adverse effects of Jewish influence in Germany. The second section features a selection of writings and quotations by prominent European anti-Semites, both contemporary and historical. These include representative writings by Luther, Voltaire, and Wagner, and were included as a way of legitimising the immediate anti-Semitic zeitgeist. Also included in this section is reference to early written material which would eventually see publication in the infamous and discredited anti-Jewish work Protocols of the Elders of Zion.[17] The third section of the Handbook is a particularly notorious list of statistics “proving” the disproportionate influence of the Jews on German culture. Included in this section, and representative of the depth of Fritsch’s anti-Semitism, is a list of names and addresses of prominent Jews. Presumably, this feature of the Handbook was included to further public discrimination against Jewish citizens.

Of the writers and activists surveyed in this chapter, Fritsch is a key figure linking the anti-Semitism of the late 19th century with that of the emerging Nazi party. Much of the academic literature relating to Fritsch attests to his importance for both shaping Nazi ideology and facilitating opportunities for political networking. Klautke, for example, considers Fritsch’s key contribution to the development of National Socialism as helping to enable the socialisation of early party members through the creation of various societies which linked disparate anti-Semitic groups together.[18] Fritsch’s impact on the Nazi’s, however, extends beyond facilitating networking opportunities. Hitler stated that he read Fritsch’s Handbook during his time in Vienna, and referred to him as the altmeister (old master) of the Nazi movement.[19] The racial overtones in Fritsch’s anti-Semitism, including his conviction that the conversion of the Jews did not solve fundamental questions of character, clearly resonated with the more racially and biologically oriented ideology of the Nazis, and were reflective of the racially orientated anti-Semitism propagated by people like Dühring. The timing of Fritsch’s death in 1933—the year of Hitler’s election to the Chancellorship—functioned as a catalyst through which he entered Nazi mythology as a legendary figure in the history of the Judenfrage. Upon his passing Fritsch’s legacy was acknowledged by the likes of Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring, and various German streets were named after him. Fritsch was duly honoured at annual National Socialist gatherings and was immortalised through a permanent monument in Berlin-Zehlendorf.[20]

Despite this clear influence, however, some cautionary notes are warranted. While Fritsch was indeed significant for the development of Nazi ideology, he was considered something of an historical relic by the time Hitler rose to power. Leaving aside the esteem in which Fritsch was held by Hitler as a symbol of a kindred spirit, he derided him in Mein Kampf. Hitler viewed Fritsch’s Völkisch anti-Semitism as anachronistic and unable to meet the challenges of post-first World War Germany.[21] It is also noteworthy that Hitler considered the “old guard” of 19th century anti-Semitism as having failed in their mission to respond effectively to the Judenfrage, and for foolishly believing in a utopia without violent struggle.[22] In fact, the perceived “failure” of the völkisch anti-Semitic groups is a key contributor to Hitler’s own mass appeal, which was premised on the very notion of an historical failure to deal with the Judenfrage. To draw a straight line from Fritsch to the Nazis also overlooks Fritsch’s own conflicted relationship with the emerging National Socialists. Klautke notes that throughout the 1920s Fritsch’s membership of the German Völkisch Freedom Party (DVFP) meant that he considered the Nazis a rival organisation and their brand of anti-Semitism distasteful.[23]

In summarising Fritsch’s relevance for the emergence of Nazism, it is helpful to hold a degree of tension between his clear links with the early Nazis and the somewhat outdated nature of his völkisch anti-Semitism (at least in terms of Hitler’s assessment).[24] And while it would be irresponsible to diminish Fritsch’s influence on Nazi doctrine, this influence must not be ascribed with a power disproportionate to what it was in practice. Although it is true that Fritsch was both widely read and recognised by Nazi party members (including Hitler), by 1933 he had become little more than a relic of a bygone era, replaced by a combative and particularly ferocious hatred of the Jews that was unique in world history. Further, recent scholarship has questioned the widely accepted view that the Nazi party—and the Holocaust specifically—was the inevitable telos of late 19th century völkisch anti-Semitism. Samuel Koehne, for example, argues convincingly that despite an obvious continuity between völkisch ideology and Nazism, it is vital that the complexity of the historical situation is acknowledged, especially as this relates to the unfolding of anti-Semitism from the late 19th century until the advent of the Nazi-era. Koehne is right when he surmises that no matter what historical influences and legacies helped shaped Nazi self-identity, these were always subservient to Nazi policy, fuelled as these were by Hitler’s violently militaristic Weltanshauung.[25] In the final analysis, Fritsch’s major contribution to the history of German anti-Semitism is reflected in two key areas. First, his crass and outspoken propaganda against the Jews was particularly influential, as symbolised by the success of his Handbook of the Jewish Question. Most important, however, is the simple fact that Fritsch functioned as a link between the old and new eras of anti-Semitic philosophy within Germany, using his considerable influence to create social and ideological connections between 19th century anti-Semitism and the emerging ideology of the future Nazi party. 

Notes 


[1] See Reginald H. Phelps, “Theodor Fritsch und der Antisemitismus,” in Deutsche Rundschau 87 (1961): 443.

[2] Uwe Puschner, for example, has described Fritsch as “the figure-head of racial and völkischanti-Semitism” (Die völkische Bewegung im Kaiserreich. Sprache – Rasse – Religion [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,2001], 57].This view is echoed by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who has referred to Fritsch as “a key-figure of anti-Semitism and one of the ancestors of National Socialism” (Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, 4 vols. [Munich: Beck, 1987–2003], 3:931).

[3] Moshe Zimmermann, “The Pre–1914 Origins of Hitler’s Antisemitism Revisited – A Response,” The Journal of Holocaust Research 34 (2020): 88; Richard Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb: The German Evangelical Church and the Jews, 1879-1950 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976), 341.  

[4] Theodor Fritsch, Handbuch der Judenfrage (Leipzig: Hammer, 1934), 5.

[5] See Ulrich Sieg, Deutschlands Prophet: Paul de Lagarde und die Ursprünge des modernen Antisemitismus (Munchen: Carl Hanser, 2007), 451–52. On Nietzsche’s complex relationship with Judaism, see Robert C. Holub, Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[6] As quoted in Robert C. Holub, Nietzsche in the Nineteenth Century: Social Questions and Philosophical Interventions (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2018), 292.

[7] See Michael Bönisch, “Die “Hammer”-Bewegung,” in Handbuch zur völkischen Bewegung 1871–1918, ed.Uwe Puschner, Walter Schmitz, and Justus Ulbricht (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995), 341–65.

[8] As quoted in Moshe Zimmermann, “Two Generations in the History of German Antisemitism: The Letters of Theodor Fritsch to Wilhelm Marr,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 23 (1978): 95–97.

[9] Excerpt taken from Fritsch’s correspondence with Marr on 8 May 1884. See “Theodor Fritsch to Wilhelm Marr on New Tactics for the Struggle Against the Jews, 1884–85,” GHDI, sec. I, 1 May 2019 http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=1847.

[10] Letter to Marr dated 7 April 1885. See “Theodor Fritsch to Wilhelm Marr on New Tactics for the Struggle Against the Jews, 1884–85,” GHDI, sec. II, 1 May 2019 http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=2893.

[11] See Rudolf Kittel, Judenfeindschaft oder Gotteslästerung? Ein gerichtl. Gutachten. Mit enem. Schlußwort: Die Juden und der gegenwärt Krieg (Leipzig: Wigand, 1914), 77.

[12] See Lukas Bormann, “Between Prophetic Critique and Raison D’état: Rudolf Kittel on German Jews During the Great War and on Old Testament Hebrews in Biblical Wars,” in The First World War and the Mobilization of Biblical Scholarship, ed. Andrew Mein, Nathan MacDonald and Matthew A. Collins (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 54. 

[13] Theodor Fritsch, Der falsche Gott. Beweismaterial gegen Jahwe (Leipzig: Hammer, 1916), 228–31.

[14] Theodor Fritsch (writing as Thomas Frey), Antisemiten-Katechismus. Eine Zusammenstellung des wichtigsten Materials zum Verständnis der Judenfrage, 2nd ed. (Leipzig: Beyer, 1887).

[15] See Ebgert Klautke, “Theodor Fritsch:‘Godfather’ of German Antisemitism,” in Rebecca Haynes, In the Shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Rebecca Haynes and Martyn Rady (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 9.  

[16] Klautke, “Theodor Fritsch,” 9.

[17] See Norman Cohn, Die Protokolle der Weisen von Zion. Der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung, Mit einer kommentierten Bibliographie von Michael Hagemeister (Baden-Baden: Elster, 1997), 41.

[18] Klautke, Theodor Fritsch, 22.

[19] Massimo Ferrari Zumbini, Die Wurzeln des Bösen (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2003), 322­–23, 340–43.

[20] See Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 57–58.

[21] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Munich: Zentralverlag Der NSDAP Franz Eher, 1941), 395–96.

[22] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 395–96.

[23] Klautke, Theodor Fritsch, 20.

[24] The German Church historian Klaus Scholder states that by 1918, Fritsch’s variety of völkisch philosophy had become “the affair of a handful of agitators” (The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. [London: SCM, 1987], 1:76). 

[25] See Samuel Koehne, “Where the National Socialists a Völkisch Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas,” Central European History 47 (2014): 790.

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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